Category: Free reads

The Witch of Nok

The Witch of Nok

This story is set in the Dragon Souls universe. Part of the Havesskadi 2021 Dragoniversary. Nok is a village at the borders of Danv, Sesgrond, Uvalhort, and Hriss. Many roads intersect here. Go here for the Patreon post.

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Stillness permeates over the garden and the cottage under the mid-morning sun. Spring is a fickle season in Nok. From the west come the warm winds of Uvalhort, tempered by their southern, Danvian, cooler counterparts. The plains stretching into Sesgrond draw them eastward, creating a constant breeze. But on days like today, the freezing air of the Ahrissal mountains descends from the north, threatening with the last vestiges of winter.

Nina kneels in between the rows of seedlings, checking for frostbite. As she waters them one by one, the memory of her mother flows to the forefront of her mind. In this very spot, she’d keep the ground warm, blanketing it with an invisible hand, protecting the plants.

Warily, Nina steals a glance toward the village. The cluster of houses and inns and stations sits behind the slope of the hills it stretches over. Their cottage has always been hidden from view, it’s how her mother liked it. “If people really need me, they’ll find me,” she used to say.

Nina’s not so sure. People have needed a witch around these parts for too long, yet their own prejudice has been the main impediment in Nok. Yes, gemstones are scarce, but it would be worth it to collectively pay a witch for good crops instead of facing starvation. With a sigh, she pulls her neck chain from under her shirt. Its locket holds a tiny amethyst shard, the last stone left from her mother. It would be enough to protect her garden, but Nina’s been saving it for emergencies.

She shakes her head at herself. Not only that, but finally using it would mean… would mean she’s chosen her path in life. There’s no turning back from magic. Touch it once, let it rush through you, and nothing else will compare. That’s what Nina’s mother taught her. Because Nina has the inclination to become a witch. She can see it.

Dragon magic.

The very magic her mother yielded.

Yet, Nok has never been grateful for her presence here. Now, Nina faces this crossroad of choices. Her father is an ordinary man. He’d learned a trade, worked as a carpenter most of his life. Nina could follow in his footsteps. Shaping wood is not that much different than shaping magic, although a much slower process.

Then again, Nina is reminded of their nearest neighbor, a young man saving whatever sliver of gemstone he can find for a transition ritual. He could use a witch that won’t make him pay an arm and a leg.

Working with magic requires dedication. But is it something Nina is ready for?

With another sigh, she hides the locket again, but before she can return to the seedlings, a shadow falls upon her. Curious, since no clouds have been gracing the sky. Nina looks up and almost chokes at the sight of great wings above.

She watches in awe as the black dragon lands on the road, and with less grace than she would’ve liked, she scrambles to her feet in time to see a rider climb down from the dragon’s back. The man—or whatever man-appearing creature this is—wears a hooded coat, with a bow peeking from his shoulder. Nina’s sure a quiver is there, too, out of sight.

So, so weird. Dragons aren’t known for letting others ride them. Perhaps it’s under a spell, in which case Nina should… do something. She’s not sure what, however.

Hurriedly, she approaches them and bows.

“Great dragon,” she greets them as per custom. “Our souls bask in your brilliance and our doors are open. We are grateful for this visitation.”

The rider laughs and Nina shoots him a glare.

Only—she can’t—

She can’t actually see his face. It’s there, she knows it’s there. A nose, eyes, mouth, but when she tries to bring them together, they slip away from awareness.

Magic, then. Nina allows her othersight forward.

Oh.

A gasp leaves her, unintended, but the veil of magic surrounding the two visitors is unmistakably draconian. Mesmerizing, like a river flowing around them, water upon which the sun shines to glitter into a myriad of rainbows parting and twinning and separating again.

The archer tilts his head, as if aware of being seen, but Nina wouldn’t look beyond the veil without permission.

“Nina!”

The shout brings the world back into focus, the voice raw and desperate. She turns.

“Papa?”

From the thicket of trees down the road, her father half-runs, stumbling. His clothes are torn, there’s dirt on his face and— Is that blood? Papa holds a hand over a row of gashes on his other arm.

He falls to the ground when he finally sees the dragon, eyes wide, mouth open, and Nina takes off toward him. The rider, however, reaches him first. He’s crouching next to Papa when Nina comes to a stop. Her hands are shaking, but she’s determined to see to her father’s injuries.

“Please, don’t be alarmed,” the rider says. “We won’t hurt you. My name is Ark, and that is Havesskadi. Can you stand?”

Nina can’t help glancing back at the dragon. Her fingers jerk toward the necklace under her shirt, but she forces them away. Havesskadi, the amethyst keeper, who her mother had always wanted to meet, is here.

She takes her father’s weight on the other side, as Ark asks, “What happened?”

“A wolf,” Papa wheezes, “attacked my cart, got the horse. It was alone, but it looked rabid. We have to send word into the village, or it will hurt someone.”

Ark exchanges a long look with Havesskadi—and Nina still can’t believe the frost dragon is standing right there. When the dragon nods once, he unhooks his bow.

“I’ll catch the wolf. Can you take him inside?”

Nina answers yes, though she’s not sure the full word came out of her mouth. Between the magic and the dragon and the wolf and Papa bleeding, it’s a lot to think about.

“We have a friend already in the village. Havesskadi will fly there, let him know what’s happening, and they’ll ask the healer to come.”

“No,” Papa says before Nina finds her voice. “We can’t afford the healer.”

“He’ll bring a poultice, then.”

“But—”

“It is decided,” Ark says.

He gives Nina a small smile, before disappearing in between the trees. Havesskadi flaps his wings, displacing some of the road dust, and he’s off, too.

Perhaps Nina’s been imagining them, she thinks as she settles Papa on the day bed in the front room. She busies herself with boiling water, and then with cleaning the worst of the dirt and blood off her father. Just as she’s about to search for something to treat the wounds, someone knocks at the door.

The person standing there is another magic-veiled creature that looks like a man. He holds out a jar.

“As promised,” he says.

“We can’t—” Nina begins, but he shakes his head.

“A gift.”

Something comes through the thick magic filling the space around them, something that tells Nina to accept without complaint. She does just that, and tends to Papa while this other stranger paces around the room, studying the various items lining their shelves. Most of them are full of herbs, from when Nina’s mother was still alive. But without gemstones, they’re useless.

“What is your name, jitrush?” he asks when Nina has finished washing her hands and Papa is asleep.

She freezes, for a moment, because that was what her mother used to call her. Very few know the word and even fewer can tell who it would suit.

“Nina,” she says. “Yours?”

The stranger watches her intently for a while. Finally, he answers, “You can call me Orsie.”

It feels like something important eludes her, but before Nina can say anything else, commotion from outside draws their attention.

Ark has returned with the wolf. The animal is large, its snouts smeared with blood and froth, lying on its side and panting.

“I’ve calmed it down, for now, but it’s sick,” Ark says and draws an arrow.

Nina watches with increasing dread as he nocks it, then points it at the wolf’s chest. The animal whines, a soft and catching sound that worms its way beneath Nina’s skin. Unfair.

“No!”

“It’s suffering.”

“Then why did you have to bring it all the way out here?” Nina hisses.

Ark shrugs a shoulder. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do for it.”

Nina shakes her head vehemently, because he’s wrong. He’s very, very wrong. She fumbles with the locket, her fingers tingling, fiery ice spreading through her veins.

The stone touches her palm and suddenly she knows. Nina can’t let it die, not without trying. Can’t let the magic go, not without trying to make life better for whoever needs it.

She’s decided.

The small gemstone vanishes from her fist as the magic is drawn from it to heal the wolf.

And then—

The world blooms into colors Nina didn’t even know existed.

The wolf licks her face, allowing itself to be hugged close. Nina’s heart pounds with a rhythm that echoes the trees, the ground and the sky, the wind beneath wings and the thrum of one—no, two anasketts. These ethereal gems carry the essence of a dragon’s magic, and two dragonsouls can only mean that there are two dragons here.

Orsie pets the wolf’s head before nudging it toward the trees. Nina remains kneeling, speechless.

“See,” he tells Ark. “A witch.”

They help her stand, and as she rises, the veil thins until gone, revealing otherworldly faces. Eyes too bright to be human—a pair in rubinous amber, the other in dark amethyst—stare back at her.

“You know my name, Nina,” Orsie says.

She nods, swallowing against the lump in her throat.

“You understand our nature must remain secret.”

She nods again. “I—yes, I do. But how—”

“Dragons,” Ark says, as if that explains everything.

Although, on second thought, it rather does. It takes a few deep gulps of air before she can even begin to order her racing mind, when curiosity finally gets her.

“Why are you here?”

Orsie gestures in a wide arc. “We were passing by when we smelled it. This place reeks of indecision, but more like a cry for assistance than a malicious spell. So we stopped to see if we can help.”

With a frown, Nina turns to the trees and back. “So the wolf was your doing?”

“Not at all! It was indeed a very sick animal. We would’ve taken it elsewhere for healing if you hadn’t done it. But it aided you.”

A shuddering breath leaves Nina and she picks up her empty locket. She doesn’t regret healing the wolf, but now the last gemstone is gone. More magic won’t be possible for her soon.

Cold fingers ending in very sharp claws wrap around her hand.

“Jitrush,” Orsie says. “Little witch. Show us to your winter cellar.”

***

It’s hours later when Nina is allowed to climb the rickety stairs down into the deep cellar. Between their dwindling preserves, the shelves are tucked to the brim with gemstones. Both raw and polished, the stones shine in violet, red, black and amber. Her breath catches and she covers her mouth with both hands.

“Why,” she whispers.

“We might be sending others your way,” Orsie says. “So better start practicing.”

Nina’s eyes fill and spill over her cheeks in hot trails.

“If you need more, I assume you know how to call for us.”

“Yes, yes. Thank you,” she says. Or she thinks she says, because she’s half choking.

Ark’s red-clawed hand grasps her shoulder. “You can refuse, you know. Give it all away.”

Nina wipes her face. The connections between dragons and their witches are delicate, her mother used to say. They are territorial, at times, and the magic of the stones leaves a mark on a witch. Havesskadi’s stones have impressed upon their cottage since before Nina was born. Now, this unimaginable treasure before her is an invitation. She sacrificed the last of her mother’s stones and now she’s getting a connection to Havesskadi himself.

“I want it,” she says.

“Good.” Orsie smiles, pleased.

Nina follows them outside. The setting sun bathes the garden in warm colors. The air itself is a little less frigid than in the morning, the seedlings safe in their rows, but even if the weather changes again, it’s fine. Nina has the resources to care for them properly.

“Goodbye, Nina.”

“Wait!” She clears her throat. “Would you like to join us for dinner? If you—if you have time, that is.”

“We would.”

“There’s someone who would’ve wanted to know you, so perhaps you’d be willing to hear of her. My mother. She was the witch of Nok. Before me.”

“Nothing would please me more,” Orsie says.

Nina breathes, free.

*** *** ***

Lost in Ynys

Lost in Ynys

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Lost in Ynys (by Ava Kelly and Minerva Cerridwen) is a crossover story with the world created by Minerva Cerridwen in The Dragon of Ynys, featuring Ark and Orsie from the world of Havesskadi.

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Lost in Ynys

by Ava Kelly and Minerva Cerridwen

Violet, knight of the village of Ynys, had just settled in his softest chair with the intriguing fantasy novel his librarian friend had recommended. It had dragons, a character described as asexual—a term he thought was quite useful to learn for himself—and a beautiful black cover with a purple gem on it that he thought Snap would have a thing or two to say about. He couldn’t wait to dive in, but as soon as he turned the first page, he was startled by a knock at the door. Grumbling, he got up, resolving to make it a very quick chat with whomever was there so he could return to his comfortable spot.

However, his interest was piqued immediately when he opened the door. He didn’t know this person, and he knew everyone, both in Ynys and the cave in the mountains. So either this was a merchant, or—

“I need your help.”

Tall and wide-shouldered, the stranger cast a shadow over Violet. One hand rested on the doorframe, the other poised to knock, pointy red nails at the end of long fingers. On second look, most of his clothes were red, too, and even his hair glinted a burnt amber.

“You are Sir Violet, aren’t you? The knight?” the visitor asked, urgency in his voice.

“Erm… Yes…” Violet straightened his back so he’d look a little taller, but he doubted the stranger was impressed. “How can I help you?”

“I lost something. Someone.”

Violet winced. Recent experience had taught him that searching for a missing person might lead to proper adventures and could invoke important changes in his life. He wasn’t sure he was ready for a repeat of all that.

He must have hidden his displeasure poorly, because the stranger rummaged through a pocket and shoved a large ruby under Violet’s nose.

“I can pay you, but you have to help me find my dragon!”

Violet stared at the gem. He’d never seen anything like it outside of Snap’s cave. “Your… your dragon? But Snap’s the only dragon around here. And he can’t be yours. He’s not anyone’s, even if we call him the dragon of Ynys. That just means he lives here…”

“Who’s Snap? I’m searching for Havesskadi, the frost dragon.”

“A frost dragon? Here?” Violet blinked incredulously. Sure, it was February, but Ynys hadn’t seen any serious frost in weeks. “Listen, I think we’d best go find Snap. He’ll be able to help you better than I can. And you can tell me everything on the way. Starting with your name, perhaps?”

“Oh. I’m Ark,” he said, straightening, and brushed some sand off his lapels.

Violet frowned, wondering how the sand had gotten there in the first place, considering that most dust around here had to be firmly stuck to the ground by the insistent drizzle of the past days.

He grabbed his coat and, after shuffling around each other awkwardly, they stepped out, with Ark following him down the path.

“We were on a walk through the woods when we found a cave hidden behind a boulder. And inside, there was a… peculiar rock. Shiny, but not like gems. Orsie—that’s him, Havesskadi— He touched it, even though I told him not to. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ he asked, and then I woke up on the riverbank to the east. One moment we’re standing on the Baurin Shores, the next I’m in Ynys. Wherever Ynys is. And Orsie is gone.” Ark gestured around them. “Some people I met on the road sent me to you. Said you could find anything and anyone.”

“That’s very kind of them,” Violet said. “I must admit I’ve never heard of the Baurin Shores before. Not even from Lady Edelweiss.”

“They’re on the northern side of the Sal. I’ve never heard of Ynys either, but I haven’t traveled as much as Orsie. I must say, you carry fewer weapons than I’m used to seeing on a knight.”

“Oh no!” Violet patted his sides frantically. “I forgot my sword! Do you think we’ll be having a dangerous adventure before we find your dragon? Because then I should probably go back and get it…”

Ark gave him a look. “If you’re worried, I have my bow,” he said, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “Not that I need it anymore, but I grew up with it. Practicing is peaceful. Nobody dares approach with chatter, the forest is quiet, and usually Orsie reads while I shoot. Or naps, but he won’t admit to dozing off.”

Violet smiled. “That sounds like a dragon, all right. Trying to convince you they’re a terrifying menace and then you look over and they’re drooling all over their gold.”

“Gold smells funny.” Ark wrinkled his nose. “Now, sleeping on a pile of sand, that’s the dream. All those grains, all yours and no one else’s, and so, so many.

“Right,” Violet said, feeling a little wrong-footed. He doubted Snap agreed with that view, and he definitely didn’t. “Anyway, it’s a relief not to have to bring that heavy sword… Hey, Ark, look!”

As they’d walked onto the square, Violet had spotted Snap sitting in front of the bakery. “Looks like we won’t have to walk all the way to the cave!” He pointed at the huge, black dragon.

“Orsie!” Ark yelled next to him, loud enough that Violet staggered to the side.

Snap lifted his head. And then lifted his other head. No, that wasn’t right, Violet thought, just as his friend split in two in front of his eyes. One half was still Snap, yellow-eyed and familiar, but the other’s eyes sparkled like purple gemstones, even under the overcast sky.

“Hello,” Snap’s deep voice greeted them. “Violet, meet Orsie. I’ve never met anyone like him!” He was clearly delighted by that fact.

Orsie, the second dragon, stopped chewing and blinked at them. “Ark?”

And then he was rushing at them, faster and faster until he was plastered against Ark. Violet barely had time to resign himself to the upcoming trample, except— The one hugging Ark next to him wasn’t a dragon anymore, or at least didn’t look like a dragon, with arms and legs and a human face.

“How did you get here?” the new Orsie asked. “I thought I was the only one pulled through.”

“Hold on,” Violet said, staring at Orsie, and then glancing at Snap. “Can you… Can you do that too?”

Snap chuckled. “No. I don’t think any dragons from our world can shift their shapes. We’re always dragons.”

With a huff and a growl, Ark glared at him. “We’re still dragons.”

Suddenly, a few things came into focus: the claws both visitors shared, their otherworldly eyes, the sharp fangs visible behind Orsie’s grin. Violet took a sensible step back.

“I… I didn’t realise you were…” he stammered to Ark. “I’m sorry.”

“Fascinating, aren’t they?” Snap asked as he ambled closer. “And so shiny!”

“Please forgive Ark’s grumpiness,” Orsie said. “Nice to meet you, Violet.”

For the second time in one day, a gem was offered to Violet. This one a raw amethyst, with white and purple intermingled inside the stone.

Snap leaned in. “If you’re not going to take that…”

“It’s beautiful,” Violet said, touching it with a fingertip. “I’ve been reading about these recently and I’m tempted, but… There’s no need to pay me. I barely did anything. It’s an honour to meet you both, really. And wonderful to see Snap actually getting along with other dragons.”

“Hey!” Snap protested.

“We like to give,” Ark said and held his ruby up to Snap, who picked it up between two claws gently.

Violet raised his eyebrows, because it seemed that the gemstone had grown since Ark had knocked on his door. He shook his head. Must be imagining things. “So, what were you doing here?”

“Well—” Orsie sighed and scratched the back of his head. He hadn’t stepped away from Ark, Violet noticed, their hands clasped between them. “Against dear one’s better judgement, I touched an artifact that should’ve been demagicked before handling. In my defense, it smelled like apples.”

Ark made a face and Orsie matched it.

“It’s been a while,” Orsie continued, “since I could stomach apples. Used to like them, but.” A deep breath.

“We’ve got great apples in Ynys,” Violet said. “Have you tried Juniper’s pie yet?”

Orsie’s face brightened. “Oh, yes! Snap was kind enough to share.”

“How did you two find each other?” Ark asked.

“Woke up in his cave,” Orsie said at the same time as Snap’s, “Fell on me while I was napping.”

“Snap has a book hoard, Ark, larger than your library.”

“Quite rude to fall on someone while they sleep.”

“He’s invited us to visit it, up in the mountains.”

“The dream I was having was quite excellent.”

In an attempt to follow their conversation, Violet looked from Orsie to Snap so fast he almost felt dizzy.

“How much pie did you have already?” Ark asked Orsie, peering closely at him.

“Our entire batch.” Juniper walked over to them with a full tray.

“Well, I helped,” Snap said proudly.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you on a sugar high before,” Violet mused out loud.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t offer you any fresh biscuits, then?” Juniper asked Orsie. “They’re very crispy.”

“You have to try these, Ark,” Orsie said. “They crunch almost like rubies, the smaller ones at least. A wonderful experience.”

Crunch like rubies, Violet mouthed to himself, and turned to Snap in a silent plea for help.

“Don’t look at me,” Snap said, grinning. “I don’t eat gems!”

“What would be a better experience is going home,” Ark countered, but he accepted one of the biscuits Juniper held up. “How are we— Oh. These are— Oh.”

Juniper beamed while Orsie nodded in agreement.

“Are they?” Violet asked innocently. “I’d better try that for myself.”

Laughing, Juniper handed him a biscuit too, which he ate happily.

“If you don’t know how you got here,” Snap asked Ark, “how will you be able to find the way home?”

A loud rumble interrupted them. It came from above, and as they all looked up, a hole opened in mid-air. Not exactly high in the sky, but not close enough to reach, either. From the other side, sunshine spilled through, and a head popped over the edge. Violet shielded his eyes, squinting, but he couldn’t make out who it was. Probably more dragons.

“It’s good to be friends with witches. I knew I’d be found sooner rather than later. That rock also smelled quite strongly of doorways.” Orsie waved at his friend, squinting upwards. “It appears to be calling us back… and it’s rudely impatient about it. Hmm, I wonder if it’s sentient.” With a push, he grew back to his dragon shape, and took flight toward the portal.

“Oh,” Snap said. His scales gleamed purple in the otherworldly sunlight. “Do you think you’ll come back later to see the books?”

Ark looked between Snap and the person above, until the figure threw both arms up.

“You can come back to see the books in a few days. But right now you have to return so I can stabilize this magic!”

“That’s Tamara. She knows so many spells. Maybe you can meet her next time?” Ark smiled at the three on the ground. “Thank you for taking care of Orsie,” he told Snap, “and thank you for helping me find him,” to Violet, “and thank you for the pastries.” With that last bit, he produced another ruby for Juniper.

He took off just like Orsie, and turned into a dark red dragon, with amber streaks spanning his wings.

“Wait,” Orsie called after Ark. “Snap’s… so shiny. Can we steal him?”

To Violet’s dismay, Ark laughed, but he was immediately relieved to see him nudge Orsie upward.

“You can’t steal a whole dragon, dearest.”

“I could try,” drifted down in a mutter as they flew through the portal. Before it closed, though, Orsie twisted around and flapped his wings with a shouted, “Until next time!”

Violet waved and then accepted another biscuit from Juniper. “Well, that wasn’t so bad, as detective quests go.”

Snap sniffed and leaned in. “What’s that in your pocket?”

“What?” Violet frowned and slipped his hand into his coat pocket, his eyes widening as he felt something smooth and hard. “It’s… It’s a gem.” He took out the ruby Ark had shown him back at home. “But how did he—?”

A satisfied grin spread over Snap’s scaly face. “It appears that dragons everywhere share one important trait. We can be very sneaky when we want to.”

*** *** ***

Savior of Humanity

Savior of Humanity

savior of humanity artwork: black/white photograph of a gloved hand manipulating an analog vintage ampermeter

January 2021 free fiction (science fiction, post-apocalypse). For the Patreon post, click here.

*** *** ***

Hands, shaking. Blade, sharp.

“No. No, don’t come closer.” Stop, please.

***

“Do you remember?”

Morr gives Kate a look. Nobody remembers anything anymore. Well, nothing from before the world turned itself upside down. Metaphorically.

“No, not that,” Kate says, waving a hand. “Do you remember when we woke up? All that confusion? None of us knowing where we were… who we were?”

Down below, at the foot of the hills, the evening stretches in celebration. The crops have been plentiful this year, and, on top of that, Kate and Jay finally managed to revive the power plant sitting up the river. They have electricity now, a better water filtration system, and sure heating for the winter.

Morr clutches at the grass and digs his heels into the earth. Many times he thought they wouldn’t make it, but their settlement has survived, against all odds. The mere thought constricts Morr’s chest with affection.

These are his people.

“I remember,” he says. “We were all so furious, though, at the ones that caused it. What were they thinking? How could they look upon the world and decide that this… this miraculous diversity needed stifling? And what were they going to do, program us all to conform?”

Kate pats his arm.

“I just don’t get where that hatred came from,” Morr whispers, more for himself than her. “Anyway. What were you going to say?”

“Nothing important.” Kate shakes her head with a smile. “Guess I was reminiscing.”

Voices reach them, mirthful, beckoning to join the dancing. Morr lets himself easily convinced, brimming with joy. They really made it. Twelve years after the worldwide event that had wiped everyone’s memory and left them without infrastructure or support or families.

***

“It is our duty to preserve purity,” the man on the screen says. “Our sacred honor and mission to rid the world of imbalance. How can they demand equality when it is clear they are not our equals?”

No.

“Equilibrium can only be reached one way: similarity. Convert those who can be saved, rip away those who cannot.”

No.

Someone screams, nearby. His throat is raw but someone screams and he can’t stop it. Must stop it.

***

Kate watches Morr run down the hill with the others, laughter echoing under the darkening sky. A shuffle of skirts accompanies Jay as they sit next to her.

“He’s really outdone himself, hasn’t he?” Jay says.

“Yes. He loves this community deeply and genuinely.”

“Good. Can’t wait to see his face. We’re doing it at midnight, right?”

Kate hums, lying down. The stars will be bright tonight.

Justice served.

Time passes, slow and steady, and despite their words, Jay curls into a ball, hugging knees to chest. “What if… Kate, what if we don’t say anything. Look how much we’ve accomplished already.”

“And what? Let him be happy?” Kate spits it, but somehow it lacks the usual bitterness. She groans and covers her face with her palms.

“Would that be so bad? He’s redeemed himself.”

“It’s not redemption if he doesn’t know why. He needs to make the right choices not for himself, but for others, and not expect forgiveness.” She sits up, places a hand on Jay’s neck in an attempt to comfort. “No one else remembers but us, and we cannot forgive him, Jay.”

“But that man is gone. You’re talking about punishing the son for the sins of the father.” A grimace. “Sort of.”

“What brought this on? Yesterday you were all in.”

Jay shrugs, fingers twisting in the material of their skirt. “This morning.”

Nothing follows and, as Jay’s silence stretches, Kate realizes she doesn’t want to know. It’s probably something she should, though, if it’s shaken Jay this much.

“This morning,” she nudges.

“Bennie’s kid is turning ten next week and they’re supposed to choose pronouns to go by. Caught them on the verge of panic because of it, even though it’s no big deal. First choice is not final choice, right?”

Kate nods, running her palm down Jay’s spine.

“But, well, anxiety is a thing and the kid was worried they’d choose wrong.”

“And you explained I assume.”

Jay shakes their head. “Morr got there before I did, so I stayed hidden and listened in. Kate,” —they turn, a sharp inhale— “you should’ve heard him. He put as much passion in that reassurance as he did b-before.”

“When he called for our deaths.”

Jay nods with a sniffle.

***

The hummed song bounces off the walls with his descent. Kate and Jay’s anniversary is tomorrow and Morr has prepared the best present for them. A book they’d talked about for years and couldn’t find in traveling distance. Morr clutches it, happy with the treasure he’s been saving for the past few weeks.

In the main room of the underground bunker that used to be their shelter, a door is open. A secret door? Morr steps in, investigates equipment and monitors with curiosity, and then clicks—

***

It’s been almost two hours of them sitting on the grass in the chilling air, and Kate’s shivering.

“We promised each other,” she finally says, “that if we were in disagreement we wouldn’t push. We’d take the time to reconsider and re-examine.”

“Yes.”

“All right, then. But the moment he shows any sign of hatred, I’m dragging him to the bunker and showing him the old video files.”

Jay looks at her, blinking. “Deal.” A pause. “Still wish we’d tell him. I want to see him suffer, but at the same time…” They sigh. “I can’t.”

“I get it. How about we wait another year? In the meantime we’ll keep a closer eye on him.”

“Sounds good.”

Kate drags herself up, then, bones creaking with age. “Let’s get down there and turn off all the equipment. We don’t want one of the children to be scarred for life.”

***

“What happened?” Head aching, heart pounding, breath shallow.

“The machine.” A cough. “It detonated.”

“But—wait, I still remember.”

“Everything?”

“Everything. You?”

“Same.” Around them, the floor is scorched in thin concentric circles. “Must’ve had some safety bubble around itself, to protect whoever activates it.”

“So… what do we do now?”

“We get revenge.”

***

He can’t stop crying and he can’t stop shaking.

It can’t be him.

Kate’s taken his knife, so he doesn’t even have that as an option. Wait, that’s not true.

“I have to,” he says, scrambling to his feet. “I have to make it right. I have to—”

Jay’s long fingers wrap around his trembling ones. “You can’t.” The finality of the words slices and scrapes. “But you can continue what you’re doing.”

“It’s not enough.”

“It will never be enough,” Kate says.

Morr’s been hating himself, it turns out. He surely does now. But he also loves them, the ones still laughing above ground, embracing their differences, their kindness, their true selves.

“Don’t you ever dare forgive me,” he pleas.

Jay pets the side of his face and Kate squeezes his shoulder.

“We won’t,” they promise. “Not ever.”

*** *** ***

The Hollow Planet

The Hollow Planet

Color photograph of a glass sphere with red tendrils inside.

December 2020 short story (science fiction, fantasy, nonbinary character). For the Patreon post, click here.

*** *** ***

Nohm’s been hearing about it, just like everyone else, for nearly half a galactic cycle. Right on the outskirts of Horvium-occupied territories, a binary system is engaged in an oscillating orbit inside a pocket of perfectly empty space. The hollow planet and its silver sun, while caught in motion by each other’s gravity wells, revolve in an elliptical path that angles up and down, as if the pull is real. As if the absence has mass. The phenomenon has been baffling scientists of many species for lifetimes, but no explanations have been found.

Half a cycle is a long, long while, yet the system continues its movement, unrelenting. No radiation is breaking through to signal anything, not even signs of a star decaying—as there should be. Neither is anything else drawn in, no matter, no debris. An almost perfect void surrounds the two entities, no forces aside from their own pulling and pushing inside that unfaltering nothing.

Spreading zir tendrils around a cluster of asteroids, Nohm nudges zirself closer. A few light-years brings zir receptacles near enough to sense the thinning in minerals.

Nohm pauses, tasting.

As Nohm waits, observing the peculiarity, time stretches in wisps and twines. Unaware ships fly through Nohm to the planet—scientists and visitors alike—and they crackle with unexpected surcharges to their systems. The tickles are pleasant but unfortunately damaging to the vessels, so Nohm drives zir body into a carefully chosen rotation, parallel to the orbiting system. Ze is out of the way now, yet still able to catch onto communications, unwilling to miss the possibility of the mystery being resolved.

As curious as Nohm, the metaldwellers move their instruments about—poking, probing the weirdness—and Nohm learns of their cultures while watching over their lifespans. Throughout zir existence, Nohm had witnessed civilizations come and go, species arise and disappear, planets turn to dust. They had all been mere smudges on the canvas of Nohm’s awareness, and yet so delightful to be known. So saddening to have gone. Nohm commits all to memory, these species in particular, their cycles so short between spawn and decay. They live off one of the few aeriforms corrosive to Nohm, one that deteriorates biological matter, both a fuel and a poison. Nohm continues to be fascinated by the creatures that had evolved to consume it, this oxygen.

Aegidum—the hollow planet itself—is wrapped in a thick layer of it, a gaseous mass held in place by the planet’s rotation alone. More than that, as Nohm picks up from intercepted communications, it seems that the bodies of the Aegides never degrade, although they breathe the same air. The whole thing feels like a riddle wrapped in an enigma and it pulls at Nohm, demands itself solved. It’s baffling, when Nohm thinks of it. No heavy core to help keep the atmosphere in place also means, according to the laws of possibility, that the planet shouldn’t even be there. Unless zir progenitors had made a mistake when teaching Nohm the basic rules of everything. Or maybe here, in this section of the explorable cosmos, the fabric of reality is merely different.

Maybe this is why the inhabitants of Aegidum are ageless. Maybe this is why Aegides is synonym with Protectors in some languages, because the universe is preserving them and not because they seem keen on sheltering Horvium refugees. Nohm would like to join the stuttering stream of travelers, to observe for zirself, but there’s too much oxygen there. So ze waits, tasting from afar.

***

“Mayday, mayday, this is—”

Nohm turns zir attention to a small vessel spiraling into zir unseen body. Its denomination doesn’t appear to be of Horvis, nor of any of the science fleets.

“Life su… down, mayd—”

One lifeform on board. Nohm performs a quick check and discovers an impossibility to repair the ship, or save its occupant, if it were to continue on its current trajectory. Actually, that’s not entirely true, there is something Nohm could do, but ze is wary of going through that again. The last consciousness ze joined with almost destroyed zir value system.

“If anyone is out there,” the lifeform says, voice coming from within the space Nohm occupies, “please. I don’t want to die. Not yet. People,” —a cough. “My people are in danger.” Inhale. “Need to help them.”

The ardor in the being’s voice resonates through Nohm in a way nothing has in a long while, and that drives zir to consider taking action. Something akin to fondness unfurls deep within zirself at their despair. This creature, with their last reserves of energy, is determined to help their own, and Nohm yearns for that sort of belonging. Ze decides, then, to preserve them for their loyalty.

Quickly, before it can be lost forever, Nohm pushes that last breath back in. The oxygen burns, but ze endures until life is pulsing through their body once more. With practiced ease, Nohm divides a piece of zirself to leave behind, to fuel their survival, before threading a connection between them. Ze is expecting the delicate touch of thoughts to flicker softly, to grow steadily—

The contact forms instantly. Nohm startles just as ze takes a heaving breath, a myriad of sensations invading zir entire being. This requires zir full attention, so Nohm draws away from zir outer body in favor of focusing zir conscious foremind on the creature. Nohm hasn’t entwined with one of this species before; it’s unnerving.

They flop together ungracefully, limbs uncoordinated, before Nohm manages to take hold of the nervous system.

A flash of memory rushes through.

Family. Enemies. Help.

They were traveling to Aegidum to warn of an impending threat. Nohm licks zir lips, rubs at zir chest. With zir here, the City of Protectors doesn’t need to fear anything anymore. Nohm zirself can defend the planet against most weapons of the known species.

However, another chance presents itself. Having an appropriate set of lungs means Nohm can finally descend to the surface. See it in its wonder from up close.

Zir feeding cavity opens to reveal sharp bones and Nohm runs zir fingers over them. A grin, ze tells zirself from the back of zir mind. The other, when ze asks for their name, reverberates Nohm’s own back, as if their merge has been absolute. They seem content though, so Nohm shrugs zir new shoulders and pushes the ship forth with zir outer body, spread transparent through the space outside.

***

On the surface of the planet, Nohm watches the sky, expectant. Half a galactic cycle has passed too fast. Ze exhales a shaky breath just as a cold hand settles on the back of zir neck, supportive. Below them, the city is silent, its dwellers in a similar pose, faces turned upward.

“Mother,” Hea whispers, “how much longer?” Her gaze of now is just as bright as that first time Nohm saw her among the ruins.

“Not long.”

Not much more before they all end. Nohm bows zir head, eyes falling closed.

“We’re ready,” Hea says, the determination in her voice a familiar resonance across lifetimes. “Tell us the story again.”

Nohm nods.

“It happened ages ago,” ze recalls, zir words reverberating through the minds of the Aegides, zir children. “Our essence was floating up above when we tried to defend you against an attack. The Horvium activated a weapon that caught us just after we landed. We consumed its energy for as long as we could. When the excess spilled over the planet, we had to divide even further, to protect the you of then.”

Murmurs flow through the crowd and Nohm sits on the rocky ground. Ze runs zir fingers over the frozen stone, recalling each mineral, each minute moment of feeding, and then all the effort poured into pushing the raw materials out of zir old body to create the sphere shield around zirself.

Beyond the crust, the rest of zir slumbers. Ze is waiting for that moment when time folds in on itself, to overlap once more. To restart the creation of Aegidum and their peculiar little system, revolving around emptiness. Nohm now knows what lies at the center of their orbit: the focal point of a self-generating temporal pivot. Unseen to instruments, unobserved by the eyes of living creatures, unimaginable in its magnitude. Yet, it generates gravity. It pulls at things, in that void left behind by Nohm’s feeding.

There are many reasons why it formed there, a lot more suppositions Nohm could make as to how it appeared. Perhaps, indeed, something is different here. Or perhaps it’s coincidence. Either way, it exists, looping around half of a galactic cycle, and Nohm isn’t sure ze wants to break out of its grasp. Not even when ze has to relive this moment over and over again.

Zir musings are interrupted by a bright flash accompanying the entry of a ship into the upper atmosphere. It travels downward in a controlled trajectory despite the way the hull overheats with friction. Soon, the smoking vessel slows to a halt on the rocky edge of the hill overlooking the city.

From inside the cabin, zir own face stares back with curiosity. They still have a few seconds left and ze counts them silently as zir past self approaches.

“Aegidum burns today,” ze recites the well-known words.

“No,” the other Nohm rasps, voice already affected by the temporal distortion.

Next to zir Hea sits, leaning their shoulders together. Nohm smiles.

***

The weapon’s energy discharge is finally contained around a cluster of cascading singularities drawn from the temporal convolution itself. It resembles a gleaming star against the dark vastness of space. Nearby, Nohm rotates zir stone-shielded ethereal mass with carefully chosen velocity, generating enough gravitational push to keep the destruction at bay. Enough pull to maintain the pocket of atmosphere hosting zir wards around zirself.

On the surface of zir rocky body, the pieces of zir fragmented consciousness are taking hold of the charred remains of the Aegides. Mending. Breathing again. Nohm pulls zirself out of the ashes, the remnants of the metal ship in distorted shapes pointing toward the crystalline sky.

A child cries, clutching at zir arm, and Nohm wipes the soot off her distraught face as her bright eyes widen. “Mother?”

Nohm pauses. In the back of zir mind, the other is restless. Protect. Hold. Daughter. And Nohm spares no further hesitation when accepting this proffered role.

“Yes,” ze agrees and picks up the child. “We’re here, Hea. You’re safe now.”

Ze can feel the entirety of their newborn system—the hollow planet and its silver sun—locked in motion. Out there, in a distant corner of the galaxy, the Nohm ze used to be is turning zir attention toward Aegidum, with unabated curiosity, an unaware defender.

“We are all protected.”

It makes sense then, the unexplainable mystery unraveled before zir eyes. Laughter follows, and Nohm clutches at this amazing new feeling. Ze wouldn’t give it up. If it came to it, ze’d find a way to bring it all back, to make sure Aegidum is born again and all its dwellers endure. Barely a moment passes, between that thought and the consequent realization. Nothing is more powerful than eternity, not even the wisdom of the progenitors, and Nohm has entrusted zir own to this life.

To Aegidum, unending.

*** *** ***

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Knock, Knock

Knock, Knock

Black and white photograph of a hand holding onto a chain.

November 2020 short story (fantasy, horror, nonbinary character, folklore). For the Patreon post, click here.

Author’s note. This story is inspired by a superstition from Dobrogea (Romania). It is said that those who are called late at night or when alone, must wait for their name (or the knock on the door, or the banging at the window) to repeat three times. Otherworldly creatures only perform their lure of choice twice. To make sure it’s another human, one must wait for the third attempt.

On November 30th, Romania observes the holiday of Sfântu’ Andrei (Saint Andrew). The night of Sântandrei is the one when magic is at its strongest, when the strigoi walk the earth, when the wolves go hunting. It is the night that heralds the coming of winter.

On this day, join us. Celebrate the beginning of the end, so that the cycle can begin anew with the following spring.

*** *** ***

“Oh, and one more thing,” the caretaker says as they stop in front of a door. He unlocks it, and then pauses just outside the room, the corridor stretching dark around them. “If you hear knocking at night, don’t answer.”

Liam raises an eyebrow, ready to roll his eyes, but the grin the guy gives him, like he knows what Liam might say, stops his reaction. Instead, he asks, “And why is that?”, playing along.

“You don’t want visitors.” The answer is as cryptic as expected.

Liam huffs. “What if it’s you then? Or room service.”

“We call ahead. If it knocks twice, don’t open the door.”

Liam lets the air rush out of his lungs in an unabated sigh. Right. Tourist attraction, haunted house or whatever, it’s why he’s here after all. To investigate this cabin out in the hell-knows where. There are rumors people might be disappearing from the area and the deputy chief has tasked Liam with a surveillance assignment. Chances of fabrication are high, of some guy spreading rumors online to up his ratings, but it doesn’t mean they should ignore the request made by the sheriff of Lethe, a small nearby town stretching over the slope of the mountain.

“Let me guess,” Liam says, barely holding back a snort, “only devils knock twice.” The phrase has been all over some specialty forums, making its rounds among those passionate about urban legends and places with a paranormal flavor.

The caretaker’s grin widens, oily at the edges. “Got it, city-boy.”

Liam’s skin crawls and he hides the incoming shudder by sidestepping into the room.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” he says over the sound of the door closing.

It echoes.

***

Rain patters on the window. Soft, at first, but with increasing force as the wind howls through the pine trees. It’s as eerie as advertised and Liam has to give the owners credit. This place would create a wonderful experience for the horror aficionados. Lost in thought, he almost doesn’t hear it, that’s how much it drowns under the drumming on the glass.

A knock at the door.

Chill spreads through the soles of his bare feet and Liam stops, pajama pants halfway up his thighs. He listens, intently, for another. When nothing follows, he shakes his head and finishes preparing for bed.

Knock.

Second one.

This time, Liam freezes with his hand on the bed covers, a leg already raised off the hardboards. He huffs with a headshake, half impressed, half warily curious. For a fleeting moment he considers indulging in the show, but the sooner he can eliminate the theatrics, the better he can do his job.

He wonders, idly, if there are any hidden cameras around the room as he walks to the door, yanks it open—

***

There are bones inside the fingers and the meat around them shakes with pain. The teeth are blunt. More bones to run the tongue onto. It catches on a sharper edge, but it’s not enough to cut. The vision is dull, just like everything else about the new container.

Wood, there’s wood under the fingers and the bones of the knees. Scratches, without avail. Wants to scream but nothing comes out of anywhere.

The fingers are too thick and soft, meat soft, to rip at the throat but still presses them there, where voice should form. The flesh ripples under numb nerve endings. The skin is clammy, wet and cold and so, so disgusting.

Ao gags. The ripples change shape. Maybe they need to ripple differently. They try, again and once more.

There.

A sound.

Their hearing is just as impaired as the rest of them.

The body feels like a cage, bounding them to the unrelenting void that presses from all sides. They give into the shaking of the bones and collapse. The air scratches at the throat, but Ao pushes through inhaling and exhaling, trying to clear their mind.

Beyond everything, beyond bones and flesh and cold, it dawns on Ao that they’re alone. There’s no thrumming of otherness inside their mind, no companionship. The human better be appreciating the warmth of the homefire.

Regret grips them, sharp and foul. The progenitors have rules in place for this very reason, urging patience and experience before visiting. Ao was too curious, too rushed to taste and understand, and they sneaked into the calling chamber without a tether, to avoid immediate discovery. The growl they want to let rumble through their chest, as they search for comfort, fails to emerge.

It’s not worth it, they conclude. Ao can already imagine the mouth-slit of their hatcher allotting the punishment of having their name removed.

The shivering subsides, after a long while, and they push at the flesh until it stands on its own. Still a bit trembling, more fatigued than anticipated, the sensation peculiar and unwelcome. This sort of body should require much less energy to yield, and yet Ao is drained. One thing is sure, though. They’re not coming back here anytime soon. It’s sickening.

They’re looking around for a blade to pierce the flesh and draw blood, since they don’t have sharp talons anymore, when the boundary of the space gapes opens. A human stands there, baring mouth-bones, and Ao tries to do the same.

“You don’t have to do that. I know your kind doesn’t smile.”

A hand lifts and that’s—

The meat of their belly lurks and Ao takes a step back. Stumbles. It’s hard to walk with only two legs.

“Easy, now.” The human is nearing, arm extended, but there’s nowhere to run, not when Ao’s back hits a wall. Or is it a table? A thing solid enough to hold them there.

Just like it.

Ao can’t look anywhere else, chest hurting with the pounding from within. There’s no escape and the thought pushes something fetid up the throat. The rune nestled in the human’s palm is hot when it touches the shoulder and Ao knows they’ll be trapped if it gets past the thin cloth that covers it. Knows, somehow, that they’ll need to cut off the meat on which the sigil will sit.

“There we go, let’s tame that spirit of yours.”

The tainted symbol presses, as unyielding as basalt, until it burns, only this time Ao does hear their own scream. The human falters at the sound, so they take the chance and push. Hard.

***

There isn’t much will left in Ao, but they use it all to run and run. The ground, frigid and squelching with water, trips them, as if it wants to keep them here. All around, immovable creatures whisper among their own shedding flesh, unending dead spikes piercing at the soles of the feet.

One of them, of the living wood, trips them with its limbs sticking out of the ground and Ao snarls. It’s not enough to make it go away. The time they lose ends their run because next they know, something has gotten hold of a leg, pulling them back.

Ao twists, uncooperative body flopping through the mud. They can’t give up, won’t, and they grip at things until their fingers bleed, until they can kick, until they free themself. Ao scuttles away again, but not back into the dark sea of tall monsters. Light’s coming from the side, and that’s where they go. As Ao gets near, its color less faded, they smell it.

Home.

Hope swells under their ribs, more painful than the fear, as Ao pushes the large door open. The space is wide, covered in putrefaction. Yet, right there, in the very middle, is a homefire spawn. It’s tiny, an infinitesimal piece, but it halts them. They stumble to it, caution forgotten, basking in its warmth.

Snickt.

Something locks around their throat, heavy enough to make Ao crumple, knees on the ground.

The human spits, flinging water and dirt with savage hands. “You’re feisty, but no worries. You’ll learn, just like the others.”

Others.

That’s when Ao hears. Sees. Around them, bodies are strapped to tall poles, whining softly, the holes in their chests leaking sluggish amber. They’re human vessels, but he recognizes what they are underneath. Kin. Harvested for their essence.

“Here. Let me make some room.” Ahead, the human rips a hollowed body off its hook, knocks on the stained wood of the pole. Once. “This one’s yours.” A perverted simulacrum of their invitation to visit. Twice.

Ao goes.

***

Liam closes half of his eyes, soaking in the comforting presence of the progenitors for one moment longer. It does little to muffle Ao’s pain, swirling at the back of his mind. From across the chasm he can feel his old fingertips bleed, beckoning. I’ll bring them home, he promises, as the wall of the calling chamber closes behind him.

*** *** ***

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Aegis Alight 2020

Aegis Alight 2020

Collection: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, LGBTQIA+.

Release date:  16 December 2020

Aegis Alight (2020 Collection) is a free collection of twelve stories published in each month of 2020. These are stories of other worlds, other places. Stories of creatures helping, of cryptids descending from otherness to join those in need.

The stories can be read on this website or on Patreon (see links below). The collection is available for download as an .epub file.

Out now! | Download here (Mediafire, no account required) or here (Patreon) | Goodreads |

Update! Aegis Alight (2020 Collection) now contains nine stories. We are planning something big for three of the fairy tales! If you’d like to be the first to be notified, follow Atthis Arts on Kickstarter.

List of stories

Deathless (January 2020) Urban Fantasy, Death. Free. “My name is Amara and I was lost once.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

Red Quartergiant (February 2020) Science Fiction, Space. Free. “We knew from the moment it appeared that something was wrong—” Read on this website or on Patreon.

The Forgotten Stormrider (March 2020) Fantasy, Found Family, Nonbinary Character, Folklore. Free. “The morning stretches wet and crisp over the garden.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

The Implant Merchant (April 2020) Science Fiction, Fantasy, Transgender Character. Free. “Ronnie waves a cybernetic eye, dangling it from its connectors.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

The River Is Alive, Even Under Thick Winter Ice (May 2020) Fantasy, Transgender Character. Free. “The visitor to an abandoned temple claims the offering left for her.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

The Dragon and the Curse of the Glittering Tower (June 2020) Fantasy, Aromantic, Asexual. We are planning something big for this fairy tale! If you’d like to be the first to be notified, follow Atthis Arts on Kickstarter

The Dragon at the Bottom of the Sea (July 2020) Fantasy, Disabled Character. We are planning something big for this fairy tale! If you’d like to be the first to be notified, follow Atthis Arts on Kickstarter

The Dragon, the Princess, and the Knight (August 2020) Fantasy, Nonbinary Character. We are planning something big for this fairy tale! If you’d like to be the first to be notified, follow Atthis Arts on Kickstarter

Worldmaker (September 2020) Fantasy. Free. “Worldmaking is dangerous.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

Lost Cub (October 2020) Fantasy, Ghosts. Free. “A lost hunter meets a lost cub.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

Knock, Knock (November 2020) Fantasy, Horror, Nonbinary Character, Folklore. Free. “If it knocks twice…” Read on this website or on Patreon.

The Hollow Planet (December 2020) Science Fiction, Fantasy, Nonbinary Character. Free. “A binary system is engaged in an oscillating orbit inside a pocket of perfectly empty space.” Read on this website or on Patreon.

If you enjoyed these stories and wish to support me, you can buy me a coffee!

Lost Cub

Lost Cub

Color photograph of a deep orange and red sunset over an urban cityscape.

October 2020 flash fiction (fantasy, ghosts). For the Patreon post, click here.

*** *** ***

Marina sniffed at the discarded can behind the big box of discarded cans, hoping something would be left from the humans. No luck here, either, so she pushed away, stomach growling, and moved to the next one. She was pondering traveling further downwind, into unknown territory—which was less appealing than an empty belly, a reminder of how lost she was without a family out here in the wilderness—when she heard it. The cries of a cub, miserable mewling coming from around the corner.

Marina’s instincts drove her forward, though she’d never been a cub carer in the family. She used to hunt, until her hunt had separated her from the rest.

She looked around the wall warily, and then stopped in her tracks. The crying came from a human cub. Long fur on the head, fluttery purple on the rest of the body. Marina licked her whiskers and sniffed the air again.

Weird.

The human cub smelled not like it should. Like nothing at all, in fact.

She must’ve stood there staring for too long, because suddenly, the human was in her face, a long drawn sigh escaping their mouth.

“Whoa. Where did you come from?”

Marina swished her tail in warning, flashed a fang for good measure.

“Won’t hurt you, kitty, don’t worry. Can’t, see?”

The upper paw of the human slid through the ground and then into the air again. Marina took a step back. The human kept looking and looking, not moving again, and then it made a sound Marina didn’t recognize.

“Curious, aren’t you, Marina? And brave.”

At her name, she sat back on her haunches. Sadly, her hunger was not forgotten and the human made the same noise, this time showing their own fangs.

“You’re lost, but you’re in luck. I know where your home is. Or at least I think… Would you like to try and see if we can find it?”

Definitely, she would, so when the human stood, Marina followed.

“My name’s—was Simone. Nice to meet you, kitty.”

Marina gave a whine and bumped her nose into Simone’s hand. Not ignored, the gesture, even though her whiskers passed through it, giving her a chill.

***

It felt like forever, as they meandered through the human forest of stone, but then the walls of home came into sight and Marina felt like weeping forever.

“So you are from the zoo,” Simone said. “I guess you’re lucky, then. Off you go.”

Marina felt like this kindness should be returned. Not out of obligation, but because Simone had been crying and no cub should suffer like that. Instead of jumping over to the gate, she leaned closer, circling Simone’s legs.

“Oh. Thank you, but—”

Marina stressed her offer for help with the growling intended for the cubs of her own family. Simone huffed and curled closer to the ground.

“You can’t help me. You’d have to be like me, but you aren’t yet. So go ahead, go home.”

Simone showed her teeth and Marina tried to match it, before she reluctantly left.

***

Summers and winters came and went. Their cubs had cubs of their own, and Marina had slowed in her hunting. She spent the days letting the little ones practice pouncing on her tail.

Until, one evening, Simone appeared next to her.

And Marina knew, from her smells, from her touch, that—

“How help.”

“Have you been thinking about it all this time?”

“Word can. Weird.” And it was, to feel her sounds turn into human ones.

“Yeah, I see that. I guess out here in the netherworld we can understand each other differently, huh? Do I seem to speak panther to you?”

“Perhaps,” Marina thought and it materialized into speech. “Weird.” She swished her tail with impatience. “Go.”

Simone made that strange sound again, only now Marina could tell what it was. Laughter. Though small and sad.

They walked again, side by side, until Simone stopped in front of windows. Inside, two humans yelled at each other in the midst of a dirty nest, abandoned and decrepit.

“They’re the ones who hurt me,” Simone whispered. “And I want nothing more than to hurt them back. It’s why I’m stuck here.”

“You mine. Friend. Family.”

Marina attacked.

***

Later, as they stood atop a tall metal tree, Simone’s legs dangling in the wind, Marina felt it.

A pull, growing stronger with each happy laugh bubbling out of Simone.

“Kitty, can you feel—Whoa. Shall we, then? Another adventure?”

Marina placed her paw in Simone’s hand and let go.

Together, they were both found.

*** *** ***

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Worldmaker

Worldmaker

Color close-up photograph of tree roots.

September 2020 flash fiction (fantasy). For the Patreon post, click here.

*** *** ***

Right where the river bends around the mountain, in between sharp rocks and the stretch of green, wavy hills, a tree stands. Its trunk is thick with age, branches stretching over to one side, as if it grew trying to shelter the patch of ground beneath from the scorching sun.

Mel knows when they’re close, even from underneath the scarf wrapped tight around her furless witchmother’s neck. Mel can hear her quickening heartbeat where she’s nestled against her chest, safely hidden from the world. Soon, though, they stop and sunlight shines over her eyes as Mother pulls the fabric apart.

“Here you go,” she says and Mel jumps to the ground.

The tree is… well, old, obviously. Mel rounds it, searching for the spark of life still residing inside the wood. It’s difficult, but she finds it, a barely-there whisper.

Almost gone, but holding onto the world with all its might. It wants to survive.

They must hurry, then. Mel flicks her tail, rushing to Mother, and meows her consent. This is it, this is the place.

“Are you sure?”

Mel hisses, impatience crawling in her bones, only adding to the trembling of her muscles. She can’t hold on for much longer, either. If Mother doesn’t agree, they’d need to find something else, and by then it might be too late.

Mel’s power would take Mother instead. She found Mel as a tiny kitten, fed her, kept her warm, told her stories. Mel doesn’t want her to suffer for helping.

She bats a paw at Mother’s leg.

“Fine, fine, I get it. Hold on.”

The candles come out, the herbs and the tiny bowl in which they’ll be crushed.

Not long after, Mother chants, sprinkling the powder over the flames. The tension in Mel’s limbs fades little by little, until she can curl up between the roots sticking out of the ground like tendrils of another universe.

In a way, it is. A different world. Will be, a different life.

She lets out a long breath, the last for a while, and closes her eyes.

***

Moonlight shines gray over the land, cast down from between branches. The wind carries shuffling sounds of green leaves swaying, and Mel’s ears twitch. The gentle fingers smoothing the fur on her head and back stop as she yawns. Mel growls a bit, showing displeasure, but Mother laughs. She’s petting Mel again, so it doesn’t matter.

The bark of the tree creaks with another yawn.

“Well, hello there,” Mother says. “I hope you don’t mind we barged in on you.”

The wooden face leaning out from the tree looks a lot like Mother’s, and Mel blinks with satisfaction.

The lady of the tree stretches her arms, her back, and her legs as she steps fully out. With awe, she inspects her limbs one by one. Then she looks up, at the new life blooming in the tree.

“I thought my days were counted,” she whispers, gravelly and gritty, like branches against each other. “Thank you.”

Mel tucks her front paws under herself better, and rests her head down. She could use another nap. Mother’s voice drifts in the air above, talking to their new friend about names, and magic, and how to protect against dangers. What it means to be born in this world.

With a sigh, Mel closes her eyes. The power inside her has quieted, even though another spark has already started swirling behind her ribs. When she’s older, she’ll be able to take Mother with her to visit the worlds growing within herself, hold on to more than one at a time. For now, though, all she can do is gift them and wait. They’re safe.

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The River Is Alive, Even Under Thick Winter Ice

The River Is Alive, Even Under Thick Winter Ice

Color image of ivy leaves and stone.

May 2020 flash fiction (fantasy, transgender character). For the Patreon post, click here.

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On the steps of the temple, between peeling columns, the visitor stands. Above, clouds rumble with lingering thunder. She watches for a while, speaking silently to the fading fury, surrounded by petrichor. The forest is never quiet after rain, droplets sliding off leaves, moss sighing softly in the breeze, trees stretching their roots.

Long ago, the roof of the temple crumbled. Long ago, the stone walls eroded under the song of patient winds. Long ago, ivy wound its way inside, blanketing the space.

The altar, though, remains untouched, a shine to it akin to the one it held on the day of its creation.

Upon it, a tired body rests. Curled, shivering, limbs weak and breaths wheezing.

She nears, carefully. Gentles a hand through the messy hair, soothing.

“We heard the call,” she whispers, mindful of causing fear. “But this shouldn’t happen. Your world gave up worshipping sacrifices.”

The youth’s teeth are chattering, and the words come out stilted. “Father thinks otherwise. ”

“Hmm. I see. And why would he offer his child?”

“Useless. Not a—not a son.”

“A daughter?”

The nod is shaky, but undoubtedly an affirmation.

“And what would you like for your sacrifice?”

The girl laughs. It sounds hollow, as it echoes in the temple. “I don’t know, what am I worth to you?”

“A future,” the visitor says. “Come with me and explore your choices, or withdraw your offering and I’ll return you to your world.”

“I don’t understand, what do you get out of it?”

“Why do I have to be rewarded? You have worth to yourself.”

“Even if I… let’s say I want to read books all day?”

“Yes. There’s this old house that gets lonely, down in the city. It could use a companion that doesn’t talk too much. Sensitive hearing, you see.”

The laughter, this time, blooms with genuine mirth. The choice is made, the visitor can feel it, but she waits for confirmation all the same.

“I’ll go with you,” the girl says, “if you tell me your name.”

“Ah. I have many, which you’ll know in time. But one of them translates to: the river is alive, even under thick winter ice.

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The Implant Merchant

The Implant Merchant

Digital color drawing of a cybernetic eye ball with a mechanical iris and extending cords for nerves.

April 2020 flash fiction (science fiction, fantasy, transgender character). For the Patreon post, click here.

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“Get your implant, today! Half price! Offer expires in a jiffy!” Barely audible over the ruckus of the marketplace, Ronnie waves a cybernetic eye, dangling it from its connectors. “Best manufacture on the station. Come on, how about an extra ear?”

None of the hurried denizens stop or even glance Ronnie’s way. Her booth sits at the edge of the cluster of less savoury merchants, where shame runs rampant and people cover their faces. She sighs.

“No customers today, either,” she tells the mechanical critter that serves as a mascot.

It beeps, almost as if it could understand, but it’s nothing more than a toy. Ronnie pats its round body anyway.

“If we sold all the cyberlivers,” Ronnie muses over the angry rumbling of her stomach, “we’d have food for months. Imagine that.”

“Um, excuse me?”

Ronnie’s twirl puts her almost nose to nose with—hng. “You smell wrong,” she says without thinking, and quickly smacks a hand over her mouth.

The cloaked figure before her nods, twice, a sad little movement.

“That’s why I came,” they say. “I heard you… accept alternative payment?”

Ronnie raises an eyebrow. People usually have to be convinced to go the alternate routes, even though it costs them nothing. But hey, money is good, too, and Ronnie knows just where to spend it, hassle as it is. To be sought after specifically, though, that’s new.

“I might,” she admits. “Depends on what you have to trade.”

The customer unzips their coat and gestures to their breasts. “These.”

Ronnie licks her lips. “To be replaced with?”

“Nothing.”

And that one word is like being doused in ice water. Ronnie steps back. “Look here, I don’t know what you think, but I’m not—”

“I know what you are. Don’t bother denying, you smelled I was unhappy.” They pull their coat closed, shoulders hunched, and when they speak again, it’s in a whisper. “I can’t afford a surgeon and you have the skills. I don’t want anything in return. Won’t tell anyone, either.”

It’s really tempting. Judging by the size of the offer, she could save enough to build at least a set of smaller bio-implants for those who want them.

“My client, my master,” Ronnie says with a mock-salute. “But to be a client, you have to buy something.”

They freeze, because that wasn’t a no, and then quickly snatch the eye still hanging from Ronnie’s lifted hand.

“This.”

“Very well. Would you like that installed… sir? Ser? Zix?”

“Leo,” they offer with a grin. “And no, thank you.”

Ronnie bares all her pointed teeth in response. “What method of payment would you prefer?”

“The alternate.”

“This way, then.”

As Leo makes their way through the door leading to the back of the shop, Ronnie stops to make a note in her sales register.

One cybernetic eye. Payment by barter: organic materials; meal ingredients.

She winks at her critter. “Looks like dinner will be special tonight.”

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